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Morgan Guerin

Photo courtesy of the artist.

As a multi-instrumentalist, Morgan Guerin has a uniquely-large sound palette. While he primarily performs on the saxophone, you can find also him playing at a professional level on several instruments, from bass with Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science to synthesizers with Esperanza Spalding. In some cases, as on his three self-released The Saga albums, he’ll perform multiple instruments on any given song.

Through his 2020-2021 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, Sanctuary, Guerin focuses on another part of his artistry: his skills as a composer. In the piece, Guerin hopes to bridge any perceived gap between genres by conducting and adding his Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) and saxophone to a large ensemble featuring a mix of jazz and classical performers. In our conversation with Guerin, he reflected on how his instrumental skills impact his compositional process and how his music has evolved from project to project.

The Jazz Gallery: What is the concept behind Sanctuary?

Morgan Guerin: It is based on my longstanding desire to present long-form melodies and themes in their own time, as they come. Last year, I did a commission for Roulette called Wishes, which was inspired by Wayne Shorter. It featured an eight-person ensemble with two violas, cello, flute, bassoon, piano, bass, drums, and myself on saxophone and EWI. That project was fascinating to me and Sanctuary expands upon some of its ideas and instrumentation.

TJG: How is Sanctuary different from the work you did on Wishes?

MG: Sanctuary will be about twice as long as Wishes. It also involves more musicians. Both of those differences allow the group to open up a little more. Sanctuary also features new personnel for the most part. Of course, new artists will bring in new approaches and sounds.

TJG: Wayne Shorter is an obvious influence on your music. Was the choice in the title of this commission at all inspired by his famous composition of the same name on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew?

MG: No. I have always been fascinated by what Wayne Shorter has contributed to music, particularly his use of chamber instrumentation, but this piece wasn’t directly named after that song. I named it Sanctuary because it is effectively my invitation to listeners to enter into my sacred space. This commission is very personal and unlike anything I’ve released before. On many of my other projects, I play several instruments and the focus is on my skills on those instruments. But, here, the focus is primarily on my abilities as a composer rather than my own performance.

TJG: How do you feel being a multi-instrumentalist has shaped your compositional process compared to someone who focuses primarily on only one or a few instruments?

MG: To be honest, I am not sure whether being a multi-instrumentalist is an advantage or disadvantage in terms of composing. It certainly gives me more insight into what things are possible on a given instrument. During the writing process itself, that background also helps me figure things out on various instruments. I will have instruments in the same room while I have the scores pulled up and just imagine what things people could be playing or how they may be approaching a particular part. To be honest, most of my writing I do on a MIDI controller and Sibelius but it is still good to have that perspective at times.

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Samara Joy

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Originally from the Bronx, Samara Joy first came into the public eye after winning the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019. A couple of years and a pandemic later, Joy is making her Jazz Gallery debut on Thursday, July 15th, following the recent release of her self-titled debut album. One the record, Joy presents her contemporary take on a set of jazz standards, backed by guitarist Pasquale Grasso, bassist Ari Roland, and drummer Kenny Washington.

Before her Gallery show this week, we at Jazz Speaks sat down with Joy to talk about this new release, dealing with the pressures of early success, and some of her favorite singers.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us a little bit about what to expect from your first album?

Samara Joy: My debut album is really exciting—all the songs I have a personal connection to.  I wanted this repertoire to be songs that I could personally relate to, or at least add my own perspective to. A lot of standards talk about love and loss. So me being 21, and having only sung this music for the past three or four years, I wanted to pick songs that I personally relate to, as well as songs that I can add my own perspective to, and authentically convey. So you can expect a very stripped back acoustic sound of songs that I really love to sing.

TJG: Could you give an example of a particular song on your album that you have a personal connection to?

SJ: The first one that comes to mind is “It Only Happens Once.” This was a song that I came across towards the start of the pandemic, by Nat King Cole. The message really struck me because, I had a friend, or a friendship, I should say, that I lost. So, the lyrics, for the first time, struck me not in a romantic sort of way. It spoke to me personally, like:  “It only happens once. I’ll never feel that thrill again.”  Basically it is saying, this person that you come across is so unique and so special, and you know that you’ll never meet anybody else like that.

So that’s one that definitely comes to mind, as well as, “Stardust.” “Stardust” is one that definitely personally struck me. When I was studying in college, I came across the song, also sung by Nat King Cole, as well as Louis Armstrong. It was just the lyrics. Obviously, it’s been recorded so many times, but the melody and the way that it’s interpreted differently by each artist—that is really beautiful to me.

TJG: How do you go about arranging these songs and making them feel like your own?

SJ: Usually, if I’m not asking for help, I can hear the arrangements in my head or sing it in my head, if that makes sense. Or I’ll sing it out loud. Ideas will come as far as how I want to end it or how I would want to start it. I’ll listen back to versions and see how I can take  one idea for an intro and ending and make it my own. But usually, I just sing them out loud, and come up with it that way.

TJG:  You won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019 and were also named an Ella Fitzgerald scholar in college. What does it mean to you to have these jazz giants associated with you and your art?

SJ: Honestly, it’s incredible. And it’s so surreal—to have started so early, and to have started with, with these same giants. So, freshman year coming in not knowing anything about jazz, and turning to Ella and turning to Sarah for perspective on certain songs and still doing so. So, to have these honors attached to my name, it’s incredible. And I’m extremely grateful for it. I don’t take it lightly. I can’t say I’ll live up to that standard. I’m just really grateful.

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Noah Becker

Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr, courtesy of the artist.

Multi-reedist Noah Becker is filled with deep curiosity. When we at Jazz Speaks sat down with Noah to talk about his upcoming Jazz Gallery show and new record, our conservation flowed from mathematics to a painting by Paul Klee to devotional traditions of Yemenite Judaism. Becker mines this curiosity in his compositions, crafting music that is at turns rough-hewn and delicate.

On Saturday, July 10, Becker will make his Gallery debut as a leader with his band Underthought, featuring Alex Levine on guitar, Tyrone Allen on bass, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. Becker and company will be celebrating the release of their first record, The Hollow Count, which you can check out below. While you may come for the music on this stirring debut, stay for the wide-ranging conversation beyond.

The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell me about your upcoming record release?

Noah Becker: The name of the record is The Hollow Count, and it’ll be out July 7th on Bandcamp. I may do physical discs at the end of 2021, but not for now. I put out my first record, Retumbra, this past December as a co-leader with Steve Williams and Jonah Udall, only playing clarinet in that band, but this will be my first record as a solo leader (playing alto and clarinet both). The process has been really meaningful to me, and I’m grateful to everyone involved for their enormous contributions—Stephen, Tyrone and Alex for giving so much to the music, Edward Gavitt for recording and mixing, Zekkereya El-magharbel for the artwork, Griffin Brown for the liner notes, Arielle Toub and Alex Hunter for the video work…I’m proud of the final result, and I’m glad to be playing this music some more with Underthought at the Gallery.

TJG: How did the pandemic affect the timing of the release?

NB: Underthought recorded in February 2020 just before the pandemic. Actually, I recorded the Underthought and Retumbra records in two days back-to-back. I decided to release Retumbra first, and then staggered the release of The Hollow Count later.

TJG: Can you tell me what a Hollow Count is? What are we counting? And why is it hollow?

NB: Yeah, that is a curious title. I had been thinking to myself that what is countable, or what is perceivable in the world—there’s so much more to things and to people than what we see immediately. I think everyone knows this on some level, but people can really become reliant on their initial perceptions, or the perceptions that they’ve codified or internalized over time, or those that feel native to them. The simplest way for me of summarizing that idea of what’s immediately perceived, is counting.

TJG: Just to be clear, when you say counting, you’re not specifically referring to counting the beat, right?

NB: Counting in that way is something that all musicians do, like it or not, admit it or not—but no, I don’t mean that kind of counting outright. There are so many ways that numbers manifest in music—counting, and also in the construction of compositions and the construction of improvisations. They find a voice, they find a life. They’re not a dead thing. I mean, music of all places is such a wonderful place where numbers find some of their highest or most transcendent significance—or lowest, really, most rooted in the earth.

I actually initially went to school for engineering—

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Cobalt

Clockwise from top left: Lesley Mok, Henry Fraser, David Leon, Steve Long. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Friday, July 9, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to host the first live performance by the collective Cobalt. Featuring bassist Henry Fraser, saxophonist David Leon, pianist Steve Long, and percussionist Lesley Mok, Cobalt’s members are equally comfortable devising highly refined structures as they are jumping off the improvisational cliff. The group will perform compositions by all four members that explore an immense range of colors and textures.

While this performance will be the first for the quartet, the four members are already well-established collaborators. While Mok and Leon frequently play in each other’s bands (and sometimes as a duo in their Brooklyn apartment), Fraser joined Long for a wild site-specific piece written for the organ at Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel.

Don’t miss this chance to see these four omnivorous composer-improvisers discover exciting new sound worlds in real time. (more…)

Gilad Hekselman

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, some people baked sourdough bread. Others learned to knit and crochet. And yet others sat down with their guitars and learned Gilad Hekselman solos. A quick search on YouTube nets dozens of videos featuring young jazz guitarists playing favorite Hekselman solos, showing that even during hard times, jazz happens.

Since the calendar turned to 2021, Hekselman himself has done a lot to keep the music flowing, playing streams and shows with a rotating cast of top-notch collaborators. In February, he played The Jazz Gallery with the likes of Aaron Parks and Marcus Gilmore, following that up a few days later with a Smalls show alongside Obed Calvaire and Joe Martin (which you can check out below).

This week at the Gallery, Hekselman switches up the band once again, gathering a quartet comprising Shai Maestro on piano, Rick Rosato on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Join us in person, or check out the livestream! (more…)